Is all of this time at home impacting my child’s social skills?
For individuals across the lifespan, socialization has positive impacts not only on social skills, but also language development, emotional well-being, and even independent living skills. With current stay-at-home orders, your children may be missing out on opportunities to socialize through school, extracurricular activities, or even social groups. While virtual gatherings may not entirely take the place of these social activities, I have been excited to see the numerous ways that we can remain connected virtually. I think it is important that we remember the emphasis on physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, not social distancing. In fact, I encourage you to find ways for your child (and all members of the family!) to find ways to be social, while still being safe and physically distant, such as virtual hangouts or even driving by a friend’s house to wave.
What can we do at home to continue to make progress on social skills?
The good news is that there are many social skills that you can actually teach within the home environment and/or have your children practice in virtual hangouts or activities. Below I have broken down a few suggestions by skill:
- For young kids, consider engaging in an activity they enjoy that involves you – such as swinging on the swing. After several pushes, stop and wait for eye contact before pushing again.
- Elementary to middle school age children may enjoy going on a treasure hunt; hide something and use your eyes to guide your child to where it is hidden. Take turns being the hider and the seeker, but remember to only use eye contact as clues. You can also practice eye contact by looking at something and saying “what’s that!” and having the child guess what you’re looking at.
- For adolescents or young adults, meal times are a great time to practice making eye contact. Try pointing out where your child’s eyes are and find out if that’s where they wanted them to be – for example, “I see you looking at the potatoes, does that mean you want more potatoes?” If your child replies that they were talking to you, reply by saying something like “I know you’re talking to me when you look at me.” You can also prompt your child by pointing to your eyes while they’re talking.
- Try to initiate an imitation game – clap or raise your hands to the sky, and see if your child can imitate! If your child isn’t quite imitating your actions yet, a first step is to repeat their actions (for example, if your child bangs a block on the floor, you do the same).
- Play charades – take turns giving clues through gestures or actions to guess a word. HeadsUp is a free game through an app that has an “act it out” category that is fun for school age children through adults!
Turn Taking & Waiting:
- Practice turn taking while playing a game. You may consider using a visual cue that helps determine whose turn it is, such as an object that the person holds when it is their turn, or even a note that says “my turn.”
- You can use a similar approach for waiting – when it is time to wait, use a visual cue such as a red stop sign or a sign that says “wait”. Make sure that you’re conscious of how much time is appropriate to ask your child to wait – if the longest they can wait right now is 30 seconds, try using the cue for 10 seconds and then gradually work your way to longer waiting times.
- Create a story by taking turns, and maybe set a timer for how long each individual gets to speak. You could also play where each person says one word at a time and the story progresses as each person adds a word to the story.
- For older individuals, it may be helpful to practice some of the strategies to calm your body and mind while waiting that I wrote about in my post for managing anxiety (e.g., deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation).
Staying on Topic:
- Set a time during the day to practice talking on topic. I like to draw a target and write in the middle what the topic is. If your child gets off topic, simply point to the center of the target to remind them what the topic is.
- It is common for individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities to get “stuck” on a certain topic, or ask the same questions repetitively. You could set a time limit for discussing this topic. When the time limit has elapsed, make sure that your child knows when they can discuss it again (e.g., “tomorrow after dinner for 15 minutes.) I also like to use the analogy of putting the topic in the “parking lot”, and for more visual individuals will even write the topic on a sticky note and place it on a piece of paper in which I drew parking spots. Make sure to let your child know when the topic can leave the parking lot!
How do I make sure that my child is still having fun at home?
While above are some examples of times of the day to practice social skills, make sure that your child also gets breaks in their day. Try to meet your child where their skills are; if eye contact is difficult for them, don’t expect them to make eye contact every time they speak to you. Maybe pick times of the day to practice, or try incorporating one of the games above if that feels appropriate for your child. Remember to continue to give your child praise throughout the day, even for things that you expect them to do! This will build self-confidence and foster a healthy relationship between you and your child.
Any resources for social skills games or videos to view at home?
The Social Thinking curriculum by Michelle Garcia Winner has some excellent resources, such as the book You are a Social Detective. You’ve probably also caught on by now that I’m a big fan of Sesame Street if the content is appropriate for your child’s age or intellectual level – watch Elmo Knows how to Listen, this Karate Kid parody of Cookie Monster listening, or Ernie and Bert take turns. For kids who enjoy video games, try Autcraft, a computer version of Minecraft for individuals with autism. Adolescents and young adults may consider either a formal or informal virtual social skills group, such as the UCLA Peers curriculum or the numerous social activities offered through The Help Group’s free virtual online programming.
This post is part of a multi- part series of articles written by Dr. Jamie Barstein, child clinical psychologist at The Help Group with expertise in working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities as well as their family members.
Contributions to this series were made by Dr. Laurie Stephens, Director of Program Development at The Help Group.